The Most Crucial Ingredient for Solid Story Conflict

I’m currently taking a writing, blogging, and coaching sabbatical due to family health issues. For now, I’ll repost selected articles from my Fiction Writing School.

Here is the link to this article.

by K.M Weiland

Conflict is the life’s blood of fiction. Conflict means something is happening. Conflict brings change. And there’s also the little matter of human nature’s voyeuristic fascination with other people’s confrontations. “No conflict, no story” is a rule of fiction familiar to even the noobiest of noob writers. We’re told to pack in the conflict. Make sure there’s conflict on every page. When the story feels slow, just add a little more conflict. Conflict, conflict, conflict—it’s the fiction fix-all.

But is it?

Turns out conflict isn’t the wonder drug we may have thought. For example, let’s consider that last instruction: “When the story feels slow, just add a little more conflict.” On the surface, it’s pretty good advice. But, if we dig a little deeper, we’re going to find it’s also pretty problematic.

Your Story’s Conflict Might Be Broken

Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain

Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain (affiliate link)

Conflict is only interesting or compelling within the context of the plot. In other words, conflict just for the sake of conflict is not only just as boring as zero conflict, it’s also much more difficult for readers to swallow whole. Dwight V. Swain, in his canonical Techniques of the Selling Writer, explains:

[Your reader] demands that your character’s efforts have meaning. They must be the consequences of prior development and the product of intelligence and direction. So, unless you’ve planted proper motivation, he’ll resent it if your boxer, for no apparent reason, slugs a cop or stomps the arena doorman. Nor will he be satisfied, for that matter, if a gang of young hoodlums chooses this particular moment to pelt your vanquished warrior with rotten eggs, not even knowing who he is.

This means no scenes with random arguments about which of our characters was supposed to buy groceries. Why? Because in the context of, for example, a save-the-world-from-a-nuclear-holocaust thriller, an argument about eggs will be pointless. Likely, this random “conflict” is only in there because we don’t know what else to write. The story has stalled, and we don’t know what’s supposed to happen in the next scene. But something has to happen in this scene and it had better include conflict. Enter the groceries argument. Often, this is symptomatic of the meandering or goal-less character.

Creating Meaningful Story Conflict

If some types of conflict don’t cut it, how do you know which types are acceptable? Generally, of course, you’re looking for conflict that makes sense within the scope of the plot. You’re looking for conflict that flows from the plot. But how do you know when conflict flows?

It all comes down to character. And not just the character’s personality, but more specifically, the character’s motivations, goals, and reactions. Conflict that drives stories is conflict that arises from a direct opposition to the protagonist’s goals.

If the presence of groceries in the protagonist’s pantry has no effect on the story or scene goals, then the grocery conflict has no place in the story. On the other hand, if the absence of those groceries is going to spell doom (or perhaps just delay) for the character’s dreams, that’s the kind of conflict I want to read about.

What About Subtle or Sidelong Story Conflict?

While we’re at it, let’s also note that this integral conflict we’re talking about doesn’t always have to be overt. It could be the groceries in the above argument won’t have any direct impact on the characters, but the argument about the groceries might be symbolic of a deeper, unstated conflict between the characters—one which will present inherent obstacles within the plot.

On its surface, conflict is a very uncomplicated mechanism (two people arguing—how complicated is that?). But we must always understand what’s driving the conflict in every scene.

  • What’s causing the conflict in this scene?
  • What changes will this conflict cause for future scenes?

Answer just these two questions, and before you know it, you’ll have a cohesive and compelling plot on your hands.

Author: Richard L. Fricks

Former CPA, attorney, and lifelong wanderer. I'm now a full-time skeptic and part-time novelist. The rest of my time I spend biking, gardening, photographing, reading, writing, and encouraging others to adopt The Pencil Driven Life.

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